How to explain 'SOGIE' to newbies

Imagine having dinner with your (extended) family. Everybody is chatting. Despite being open about your lesbian identity, your mother is asking you again when you’re getting married. Your brother is teasing you about the girl you are dating, and your aunt is telling him to stop. And then out of the blue, your grandmother asks you, “What is SOGIE?”, making your father look up from his tablet, probably wondering if the question has anything to do with drugs.

SOGIE, an abbreviation combining sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, has become one of the main reference term to describe the LGBT (or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. It is now being introduced in many legal doctrines, in UN documents, and it is becoming popular in social media.

Its usefulness lies in its inclusiveness: The term “LGBT” is specific to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but SOGIE refers to characteristics common to all human beings because everyone has a sexual orientation and a gender identity. Everyone also expresses their gender, not just lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Aside from being new, the challenge in explaining SOGIE is that it is that it is a complex term and one that deals with subjects considered taboo in many cultures. But learning about SOGIE is crucial to understand the situation of LGBTIs. Here are some helpful pointers for you if and when your grandma pops the question:

1. Human sexuality is diverse. 

Rigid beliefs on sex and gender put people in boxes (or closets), but these beliefs do not reflect realities on human sexuality, especially how gender roles and expressions, sexual attraction, and sexual behavior influence how a person views or lives his or her own sexuality. These notions favor male-female distinctions and are biased against those who do not fit existing stereotypes on sex and gender.

However, diversity is a natural characteristic of human sexuality: in reality, sexual attraction can and do happen between people of the same or opposite genders, and we do not always fit in gender roles and identities expected of us.

2. Sex is simply the marker recorded in our birth certificates.

It is the biological difference that distinguishes people as manifested by a combination of anatomical (our internal reproductive organs and our genitals), genetic, and hormonal distinctions, as well as other sexual characteristics.

The term is problematic when used to essentialize sex as the totality of one’s sexuality. For instance, for intersex persons, or individuals whose sexual anatomy does not conform with the above definition, this could expose them to stigma, forced surgery, and other possible human rights abuses.

Many prefer to use the term “assigned sex” to contextualize that in many instances, one’s sex is often imposed by a society to an individual.

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3. Gender identity refers to one’s inner sense of self of being a girl/woman, boy/man, other genders, all, or neither. 

Our gender identity is not determined by our assigned sex. While the common assumption is that our assigned sex and our gender identity are the same (male = boy/man, female = girl/woman), sex and gender are two distinct categories. Sex is the body or container, while gender is the content or matter that fills the container.

A person whose lived experiences do not match their assigned sex assigned is known as a transgender person or gender diverse person.

A person whose assigned sex is male and identifies as a woman is a transgender woman or transwoman. A person whose assigned sex is female and identifies as a man is a transgender man or transman.

A person whose gender identity matches his or her assigned sex is considered cisgendered, while a person who relates to neither, all or a combination of genders is known as gender fluid, gender queer or other categories.

4. Gender expression refers to how an individual expresses his or her sense of self. 

Our gender expression is influenced by our assigned sex, our sexual orientation, and/or gender identity, and it may or may not reflect a society’s expectations. So if sex is the “container” and gender is the “content”, gender expression is the container’s decorations.

5. Sexual orientation refers to romantic and/or sexual attraction to men, women, both, or neither.

A person can be attracted to people of the opposite gender (“heterosexual”), to people of the same gender (“homosexual”, “gay” for male-to-male, or “lesbian” for female-to-female), or to both genders (“bisexual”). One can also be “asexual” (no sexual attraction to anyone) or “pansexual” (sexual or romantic attraction is not limited to any particular sex or gender identity).

By the time you are washing dishes, your grandmother would either be too stunned to react or too confused she is asking more questions. That’s alright. Expect this to be a continuing conversation. Use your personal experiences (and your grandmother’s personal experiences) to explain SOGIE. The point is, keep calm and educate.